Indigenous Artists Take Center Stage at the Toronto Biennial of Art

Indigenous Artists Take Center Stage at the Toronto Biennial of Art

Rea McNamara

TORONTO — Like other contemporary art biennials, the Toronto Biennial of Art was delayed a year due to the pandemic. While its ambitiously chaotic inaugural 2019 edition created quite the splash, this year’s is a more sedate vibe check — which is understandable, since it’s one of the first large-scale art events to take place in Toronto after two years of isolating lockdown restrictions.

Drawing inspiration from the multilayered narrative histories of the city’s waterways to frame collaborative kinship models, the biennial’s curatorial team — led by prominent Indigenous curator Candice Hopkins — has amassed an exciting array of contemporary Canadian and international artists, with a focus on Indigenous artists. Here are the highlights.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s 45th Parallel at Mercer Union

The Turner Prize Winner’s film is ostensibly about the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, “the last of the little cracks” straddling the Canada-United States border. Its slow pan of public library interiors becomes a portal into the arbitrariness of and loopholes in national borders. Through monologues delivered by filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel, the film connects the library’s unique jurisdiction — it became a site for family reunions during Trump’s Muslim Ban — to other contested and far more fatal border zones. Abu Hamdan’s first major Canadian commission, 45th Parallel‘s dramatic theatricality benefits from its solo presentation at Mercer, a contemporary arts space situated within a renovated early 20th-century movie theater in the city’s west end. 

Installation view of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel at Mercer Union, 2022 (courtesy the artist, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

Nadia Belerique’s HOLDINGS at 72 Perth Avenue

From a distance, the stacked white plastic drums that comprise Belerique’s installation resemble the distinctive rolls of ocean waves. Step closer, and these worn shipping containers, often used by the Toronto artist’s family to ship food and gifts to relatives in the Azores, hold assemblages composed of seemingly throwaway personal effects and photographs. The installation, entitled HOLDINGS, offers a peek into the talismanic weight of the objects we carry. Last seen in the New Museum Triennial, Belerique’s architectural creation is a bold addition to her body of photo and installation-based work, which traces the connections between image, memory, and personal encounter.

Nadia Belerique, HOLDINGS (2020-present), plastic barrels, stained glass, copper tape, lead, pouring medium, various found objects, fabric, photographs, metal frame, dimensions variable. On view at 72 Perth Ave as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art)
Nadia Belerique, HOLDINGS (2020-present), plastic barrels, stained glass, copper tape, lead, pouring medium, various found objects, fabric, photographs, metal frame, dimensions variable. On view at 72 Perth Ave as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art)

Andrea Carlson’s “Never-Ending Monument” and “Cast a Shadow” at 72 Perth Avenue

This year, one of the Biennial’s main sites is 72 Perth Avenue, a former Pentecostal Church in the city’s west end now slated for redevelopment. So it’s rather apt that two works from the Chicago-based Ojibwe artist make the most of the church’s skylight. The hand-carved wooden beams of “Never-Ending Monument” — co-commissioned by the 2022 Front International — can be traced back to Wisconsin’s “Man Mound,” the only remaining effigy mounds in the United States. Installed in front of Carlson’s multi-panel drawing, “Cast a Shadow,” these Great Lakes effigies connect with other Biennial works in the ways that they explore the Indigenous and decolonial histories of our waterways. 

Andrea Carlson, “Never-Ending Monument” (2022), 28 wood columns. On view at 72 Perth Ave as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Co-commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art and FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art)
Andrea Carlson, “Never-Ending Monument” (2022), foreground, 28 wood columns; “Cast a Shadow” (2021), background, mixed media on paper. On view at 72 Perth Ave as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Co-commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art and FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art)

ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk at the Textile Museum of Canada

Curated by the biennial’s co-curator Candice Hopkins, Double Vision feels like its lodestar, bringing together themes of kinship, nature, and craft. Focusing on a Nunavut artistic dynasty’s work in nivinngajuliaat, Inuit applique wall hangings, these textiles, shown alongside drawings and prints, are handled with warmth and care. With a sharp focus on later works from mother Oonark, and her daughters, Kigusiuq and Mamnguqsualuk — a key standout is Kigusiuq’s pulsating color-field collages — the pieces add to broader art-world recognition of the vital expressions of older women artists.

Installation view of ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (photo by Darren Rigo) 
Left to right: ᕕᒃᑐᕆᔭ ᒪᒻᖑᖅᓱᐊᓗᒃ Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (1930–2016), Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), “Untitled” (2000-2005), wool felt appliqué and cotton embroidery thread on wool duffel, 86.5 x 144 cm., collection of Christopher Bredt and Jamie Cameron; ᕕᒃᑐᕆᔭ ᒪᒻᖑᖅᓱᐊᓗᒃ Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (1930–2016), Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), “Woman with Too Many Children” (2001), wool felt appliqué and cotton embroidery thread on wool duffel, 129.5 x 147 cm., collection of Christopher Bredt and Jamie Cameron; ᔭᓯ ᐆᓇᖅ Jessie Oonark (1906 – 1985), Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), “Untitled” (1973-75, wool felt appliqué and cotton embroidery thread on wool duffel, 98.5 x 263 cm., collection of Christopher Bredt and Jamie Cameron
ᔮᓂᑦ ᑭᒍᓯᐅᖅ Janet Kigusiuq (1926–2005), Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), left to right: “Composition” (1996-2000), tissue, acrylic, polymer, paper collage, 56.2 x 76 cm. (courtesy Feheley Fine Arts); “Aupauluktuk (Small Lake with Island)” (1999), tissue, acrylic, polymer, paper collage, 55.9 x 76.2 cm. (courtesy Feheley Fine Arts); “Composition” (1995-2000), tissue, acrylic, polymer, paper collage, 56.5 x 76.2 cm. (courtesy Feheley Fine Arts); “Composition” (1995-2000), tissue, acrylic, polymer, paper collage, 56.5 x 76.2 cm. (courtesy Feheley Fine Arts); “Hanging Fish” (n.d.), pencil and colored pencil drawing, 57 x 76.5 cm., collection of Christopher Bredt and Jamie Cameron
Detail of ᕕᒃᑐᕆᔭ ᒪᒻᖑᖅᓱᐊᓗᒃ Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (1930–2016), Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), “Untitled” (2000-2005), wool felt appliqué and cotton embroidery thread on wool duffel, 86.5 x 144 cm., collection of Christopher Bredt and Jamie Cameron

Jeffrey Gibson’s I AM YOUR RELATIVE at MOCA

Graphic technicolor posters and stickers cover the interiors and exteriors of MOCA’s lobby, extolling Indigenous land ownership and other dimensions. Like artists such as Allen Ruppersberg and John Giorno, Gibson emblazons the public environment with the vernacular language of mass culture — specifically, that of the infographics that saturate our surroundings. Visitors can lounge in pillowed cubby-like pods; kids are encouraged to read inclusive children’s books from the pod’s bottom shelves. According to the work’s didactics, the queer Mississippi Choctaw-Cherokee interdisciplinary artist pulls from “aesthetic and material histories drawn from Indigenous cultures of Americas” to present a “visual archive that prioritizes Indigenous, Black, Brown, and queer voices.” The site-specific installation is a sumptuously tactile and visually rich in-person experience for viewers weary of the pandemic’s social distancing.

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOU RELATIVE (2022). On view at MOCA Toronto as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022). Co-commission by MOCA and the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (courtesy Jeffrey Gibson Studio @jeffrune, @kavigupta_, @robertsprojects, @sikkemajenkins and @stephenfriedmangallery, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)
Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOU RELATIVE (2022). On view at MOCA Toronto as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022). Co-commission by MOCA and the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (courtesy Jeffrey Gibson Studio @jeffrune, @kavigupta_, @robertsprojects, @sikkemajenkins and @stephenfriedmangallery, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

Brian Jungen at 5 Lower Jarvis

Since the late 1990s, the internationally acclaimed Canadian artist has stretched, layered, and stitched deconstructed Air Jordan sneakers into biomorphic sculptural forms harkening back to traditional Indigenous headdresses and masks. At the biennial’s 5 Lower Jarvis exhibition site, two recent works from the ongoing series take on a new form: the 17th-century plague doctor mask. Individually encased in two glass vitrines, the sharp-beaked masks connect the Black Death to COVID-19 and the rampant production and commodification of FFP2 and KF94 masks. They stand out as the rare biennial works to directly contend with the pandemic’s collective trauma and grief.

Brian Jungen, “Plague Mask” (2020), Nike air jordans, 34.3 x 68.6 x 40.6 cm. Installation view at 5 Lower Jarvis Street as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy Stephen Bronfman & The Claridge Collection) 
Brian Jungen, “Plague Mask” (2020), background, Nike air jordans, 34.3 x 68.6 x 40.6 cm. “Plague Mask 2” (2020), foreground, Nike air jordans, 30 x 58 x 38 cm. Both on view at 5 Lower Jarvis Street as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (courtesy Nicola Flossbach and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

Amy Malbeuf at Arsenal

One thread running through the Biennial is how contemporary Indigenous artists refashion traditional craft. The Rich Lake, Alberta-born artist frequently incorporates labor-intensive crafts like caribou hair tufting and beadwork into wearable art, exploring her Métis identity. The process of hide tanning forms the basis of Malbeuf’s “Kahikiyaw kikway (All of Everything),” on view at Arsenal. “Kahikiyaw” shifts away from embellishment to revel in the unadorned process of creating the home-tanned hides. Malbeuf will show the wearable works at the upcoming Indigenous Fashion Week, and the artist will eventually gift each garment during the exhibition’s run.

Amy Malbeuf, “Kahkiyaw kikway (All of Everything)” (2019-2022), smoke tanned moose and deer hide, raw deer hide, nylon thread, cotton thread, dimensions variable. On view at Arsenal Contemporary Art Toronto as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Commissioned by Toronto Biennial of Art)
Amy Malbeuf, “Kahkiyaw kikway (All of Everything)” (2019-2022), smoke tanned moose and deer hide, raw deer hide, nylon thread, cotton thread, dimensions variable. On view at Arsenal Contemporary Art Toronto as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Commissioned by Toronto Biennial of Art)

Eduardo Navarro’s “Wind Oracle” at Colborne Lodge, High Park

The Argentinian artist’s brightly colored steel sculpture stands on a grassy knoll near a pollinator garden. Its form evokes the old windmills that dot Argentina’s pastures and perhaps even the geometric surrealism of Argentinian artist and writer Xul Solar. Depending on the direction of the wind, a red triangular flag flits between “NO” and “YES,” allowing viewers to leave their decision making to the air currents. The site-specific work, part of a wider outdoor commissioning series in response to COVID-19 restrictions, brings pseudo-compass-like navigation to the city’s largest public park.

Installation view of Eduardo Navarro, “Wind Oracle” (2022), outside Colborne Lodge, High Park, Toronto as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (image courtesy the Toronto Biennial of Art)
Installation view of Eduardo Navarro, “Wind Oracle” (2022), outside Colborne Lodge, High Park, Toronto as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (image courtesy the Toronto Biennial of Art)

Denyse Thomasos

Like the Double Vision exhibition, this trio of ghostly early 1980s works by the late Trinidadian-Canadian painter reflects a broader Canadian institutional inquiry into the under-recognized work of Indigenous and Black Canadian artists. These gestural charcoal on paper works — apparently created while Thomasos studied at Sheridan College in Oakville, near Toronto — are precursors to the large, semi-abstract monochrome paintings of prisons and slave ships currently featured in the Whitney Biennial. With a forthcoming retrospective of Thomasos’s work coming to the Art Gallery of Ontario this October, we’re witnessing a reassessment of an innovator of Black abstraction.

Denyse Thomasos, “Untitled” (c. late 1980s), charcoal on paper, 151.1 x 209.5 cm. On view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery)
Denyse Thomasos, “Untitled” (c. late 1980s), charcoal on paper, 152.4 x 182.2 cm. On view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery)
Foreground: Dana Prieto, “Footnotes for an Arsenal” (2022), terracotta tiles, terracotta containers, fired soil, dimensions variable. Background: Denyse Thomasos, “Untitled” (c. late 1980s), charcoal on paper, 149.9 x 190.5 cm. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art. Both on view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery)

Camille Turner’s “Nave” at the Small Arms Inspection Building

Camille Turner’s three-channel projection “Nave” is an assured scaling of the Jamaican-born, Los Angeles-based artist’s investigations into Canada’s buried slave trade history. Partly filmed in a Toronto church and Newfoundland’s rugged cliffs, the immersive installation follows the artist’s longstanding futurist Afronautic Research Lab performance alter-ego, which conjures a Middle Passage ancestor from a church’s nave. Amid a soundscape of propulsive hand drumming and lapping Atlantic waves, the ancestor, face painted red and blue, is Anansi-like in her beach movements; she potentially signifies the human cargo carried in the slave ships built in the province. Like Isaac Julien’s WESTERN UNION: Small Boat, this video piece balances the multilayered aesthetics and histories of displacement.

Camille Turner, “Nave” (2022), three-channel video installation and soundscape. On view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art)
Camille Turner, “Nave” (2022), three-channel video installation and soundscape. On view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art)

Courtesy: hyperallergic

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